This recording can be considered part of a jam session in which Romare Bearden’s paintings play a vibrant part: the musicians playing the paintings of a visual artist who had a mighty brush with the blues.
By definition, jazz is an art of collaboration, and on this particular disc, the collaboration extends beyond the world of music into the realm of visual art and music. Only those unfamiliar with the work of Romare Bearden would consider such a jazz connection a stretch. Bearden grew up in the Harlem of the 1920s and 30’s when that glittering neighborhood was the epicenter of the jazz universe. As early as the 1940s, jazz musicians appeared in his work, and by the 1950s he was seeking visual translations for what he heard in the structures of jazz - its improvised lines, rhythms, and textures.
The way Bearden worked was jazz. “You have to begin somewhere,” he said, “so you put something down. Then you put something else with it…Once you get going, all sorts of things begin to open up.”
The way the pianist Earl Hines spaced his notes suggested to Bearden ways of spacing lines and colors in art. “Silences” between visual elements became vital to Bearden’s art. On silences in the music, Bearden’s friend the drummer Max Roach has said, “It’s not that there’s necessarily nothing going on. There’s always a pulse there. There are times when there’s nothing but the pulse…. Bearden’s paintings are like that.”
For this project, Branford Marsalis pored over reproductions of Bearden’s paintings and studied his life. As a recent transplant to North Carolina, he was intrigued by Bearden’s North Carolina roots. He discovered Bearden’s involvement with jazz culture, and that for a time the painter tried his hand as a songwriter! What developed is an album where current jazz masters reflect on the work of a very great visual artist. The result challenges hearers to see the music, viewers to hear the paintings.
Duke Ellington wrote “Slappin’ Seventh Avenue with the Sole of My Shoe” for his 1938 Cotton Club Revue as a feature for tap dancer Peg Leg Bates. Branford translates the full-band work for quintet, augmented by overdubbed tenor. It is fascinating to hear Jeff “Tain” Watts’s drum lines in light of this piece’s origins. For his part, Bearden did a 1981 collage with this title. Though Ellington’s piece was fashioned for the all-white club, the Bearden work’s caption (written by Albert Murray) indicates the black connection: “In those days, the Easter Parade uptown was along 7th Avenue from 140th to 125th Street.” Works by both Bearden and Marsalis bespeak high-fashion, Harlem-style.
Jelly Roll Morton’s “Jungle Blues” is related to his legendary “Animule Ball,” “Hyena Stomp” and other works where the whooping and thumping of the zoo is open to musical imitation along with vocal effects from human “animules,” including a heap of signifying. Indeed, at one point we seem to get a conversation between the lion-trombone (Delfeayo Marsalis) and the brilliantly eloquent trickster (Wynton’s trumpet). The approach could be called Beardenish: playful, earthy, bluesy. Sections and solos are like the patches in a collage, each speaking its piece and then stepping back to complement the whole. Look at Watching the Good Trains Go By.
Since the 1950s, when “Seabreeze” was done by Dizzy Gillespie, Yusef Lateef, and others, this is the first recording of Bearden’s most celebrated song. Branford: “I decided to go back to the original Bolero. I took it down an octave, which let me get further down into it. And no double-timing.” Bearden’s lyrics speak romance: “Seabreeze, blowing to the shore/ Cool, like the perfumed kiss of a starlight-night/ Awakening love that still burns so bright:/ Seabreeze.” See Bearden’s Reclining Nude.
“J-Mood” was first recorded on a 1986 Wynton Marsalis album for which Bearden drew the cover image of trumpeter, female shapes and water-waves. “I would say I knew [Bearden] well,” said Wynton at the recording date. “I would run into him and he would rap to me. He said he’d work on my cover if I would come to his studio. So I did, about twenty times at least. He was a brilliant man, and soulful, soulful.”
“B’s Paris Blues” is Branford’s new composition for the date. “I was thinking about Bearden’s Paris years, and about Sidney Bechet, who made great records in Paris with guitar players.” Doug Wamble is the guitarist here, playing rich rhythm beneath Branford’s intense melodies, and then picking in a style that echoes Django Reinhardt as much as the country blues. Check Bearden’s Paris Blues and recall that Bechet was important to Armstrong and Ellington, and that Africa had a strong influence on modern painting and music.
Wamble’s “Autumn Lamp” was inspired by a collage from Bearden’s series recalling North Carolina. Autumn Lamp (Guitar Player) “did not come easily,” writes Myron Schwartzman. “Watching it change over a period of several weeks reminded me of the awe I felt listening to Bud Powell, Max Roach and Curly Russell perfect Bud’s composition ‘Un Poco Loco’....Bearden himself likened the struggle to jazz: ‘You do something, and then you improvise.’” Look at Bearden’s work close-up, from the edge across the surface, advises the painter Diedra Harris-Kelley (Bearden’s niece): investigate textures and colors. Wamble seems to report from just such a close investigation.
True to Bearden’s interest in art and ritual celebration, “Steppin’ on the Blues” has a jaunty, affirmative air. “The trick is that it’s dance music,” said Branford who studied the 1924 Tommy Ladnier version of “Steppin’.” “Then I felt I’d earned the right to offer more than a carbon copy - which nobody wants.” Saturday night music rings throughout Bearden’s work: See Of the Blues: At the Savoy.
“Laughin’ & Talkin’ (with Higg)” is Tain’s composition,” said Branford. “I kept hearing it in my head while I looked at Bearden’s pictures. Without the piano, it has an open, adventurous sound. That’s Romare: adventurous. His work reflects a world of tradition and also the will to break. And in his work you just see all those drummers, drummers everywhere.” See Bearden’s Drum Chorus – with testifying horns and with the drummer’s sticks that could be a conductor’s batons, writer’s tools, or a swinging artist’s brushes.
“Carolina Shout” is a natural for this collection, not only because of Bearden and Branford’s shared Carolina stomping grounds, but because Bearden used the title for one of his most significant collages. The musical composition “Carolina Shout” was written by the master stride pianist, James P. Johnson, in imitation of the southern black religious ring-shout; it became the test piece for stride pianists of that era. Just as the word shout carries the double message of spiritual epiphany and good-time party noise, the collage’s imagery connects down-home church and uptown rent-party: body and soul. See Carolina Shout.
Romare Bearden Revealed suggests one of the good trains that inspired so much jazz music, with the wheels clickity-clacking, the whistles blowing the blues, and the people on board calling and responding - or, as Bearden liked to put it, calling and recalling.
- Robert G. O'Meally is a member of the Board of Directors of the Romare Bearden Foundation and the Zora Neale Hurston Professor of English at Columbia University where he also serves as the Director of the Center for Jazz Studies.